A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

I can't plug in these new plugs! What's the deal?

May 6, 1983

Dear Cecil:

I can't plug anything in anymore! This is crazy. The space heater I bought last year is all right, but my new blow dryer, my new clamp light, and the TV I got for joining the health club all have plugs with one prong wider than the other.

The instructions to each suggest some unspecified safety factor and tell me to call an electrician on the outside chance I should ever want to use any of these appliances. It seems all my outlets and extensions are now obsolete. What a boon for the electrical supply industry, and what a doggle for the rest of us! Who is responsible--the same person who came up with swine flu vaccine? Is there a significant safety improvement, beyond the fact that nothing is working right now?

Cecil replies:

You sound like a good fellow, Richard, but you are too excitable. The electrical manufacturers of America are selflessly trying to prevent you from accidentally killing yourself with your reading lamp, and if that means you have to rewire your entire house and throw away every extension cord you ever owned, well, that's progress, bub.

We are dealing here with what's called a "polarizing" plug, which can only be inserted into an outlet one way. In your basic household outlet, you have a "hot" side and a "neutral" side. To illustrate the importance of this distinction, find a small, odious child and place him in a bathtub full of water. Say you are going to play a fun new game called "shaking hands with Jesus."

Plug a pair of bare wires into a nearby outlet and grasp the one that is connected to the "neutral" side (the wide slot). If the outlet is correctly wired, nothing happens. Then hand the wires to the odious child, surreptitiously substituting the "hot" wire for the "neutral" one. Big laffs!

Similarly, suppose you were reading with your new clamp light while taking a shower, when suddenly you were stricken with the desire to embrace the metal collar that is usually visible around the base of the bulb. If the lamp did not have a polarizing plug and the collar was consequently "hot," you would be instantly annihilated, and unable to purchase additional appliances. Realizing this, Underwriters Laboratories a few years ago began to require polarizing plugs on many electrical devices. Show some gratitude.

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